You’re on a road trip in December and you’re gearing up in total pre-game mode for the festivities coming in the days ahead. Between the jingling of bells, the decking of halls, and all of that rocking around the Christmas tree, it’s Christmas all the way – until you hear the random track that doesn’t sound like any Christmas carol you’ve ever heard before.
You double check and you’re right; it’s certainly never made its way into the cantata, the local Christmas-round-the-clock radio station, the high school band’s holiday concert, or any of your favorite Christmas movies. You wonder how the heck that song qualified to hold its place on that (supposedly) Christmas record.
Has this happened to you before?
If you’re a music lover, the answer is, it sure has.
Throughout the past 60 years or so of commercial music, musicians from every genre have snuck in a tune or two on their Christmas album releases that aren’t traditional. In fact, these songs don’t qualify as Christmas songs at all. Sure, some of them mention snow and snowmen… but those lyrics are totally January-appropriate (the winter landscape isn’t reserved for winter holidays, so you can feel free to enjoy those tracks all-season and all-year long). Others might make one mention of the holiday at hand, but that in itself does not a Christmas song make.
The following 15 tracks all appear on designated Christmas records even though they themselves are not Christmas carols of any kind, so take a listen and feel free to enjoy these tunes even when there’s no snow on the ground!
1. “Nature Boy”
First recorded by Nat King Cole in 1948, this jazz standard appears on Harry Connick Jr.’s 2003 Harry For The Holidays record. A haunting string melody introduces the mysterious lyrics that follow a ii-V-I chord progression.
Now, you could make the argument that the lyrics about a strange, enchanted, and wise boy who discussed both fools and kings and that taught the lesson that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn /
Is just to love and be loved in return” relate to Jesus and thus make it a perfectly acceptable song to place on a Christmas album! I, myself, made that argument to my husband on our very first road trip while listening to this song on repeat on the way to a winter wedding for friends. Still, that alone far from qualifies it as a Christmas song:
2. “White Winter Hymnal”
Originally recorded by Fleet Foxes on their 2008 debut album, the amazing Pentatonix covered the tune on their 2014 Christmas compilation. Lyrics about snow and red scarves certainly conjure winter imagery – and the title is “White Winter Hymnal” – but again, this isn’t a Christmas song. It is a super cool, catchy tune, though.
Fleet Floxes lead singer has this to say about the song: “It’s lyrically fairly meaningless. As an introduction to the record, (this was intended to be the opening track on the album), we thought it would be nice to start it with a simple jam that’s focussed on singing – on the record it starts with a tongue-in-cheek harmony thing that we hoped would make people laugh or something but I think it just confuses them!”:
3. “Snow Angel”
Over The Rhine, the Ohio folk band comprised of husband and wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, is known for writing beautiful lyrics and simple melodies that engage the audience. Bergquist’s bluesy, raspy voice over the stripped-down sound of piano and cello carries the melancholy picture of the “gray and goose down sky” and “old cathedral bells” that she sings of while telling the bittersweet story of a lost love:
An incredibly lyrical, beautiful song by John Denver? Get out! I know, it’s so hard to believe that a gorgeous song would come from John Denver, right? #sarcasm.
Seriously, this song is lovely and simple and a beautiful, hymn-like tribute to a beloved Colorado town with gorgeously painted lyrics like “See the sunlight through the pine/taste the warm of winter wine / Dream of softly falling snow / Aspenglow”.
Just the same, it ain’t got a thing to do with Christmas even though it’s on Denver’s classic album, Rocky Mountain Christmas:
5. “My Favorite Things”
Personally, I have always struggled with hearing “My Favorite Things” at Christmastime – it’s straight up from a musical, people! (and if you haven’t seen The Sound of Music, well, then we need to have a chat)
The dynamic musical-writing duo of Rogers and Hammerstein created this song for the 1959 Broadway show. The song appeared on Christmas albums as early as Jack Jones’s 1964 masterpiece, with 1965 seeing Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams, and The Supremes covering the tune on their own holiday records.
Before then, it was just a song that Mary Martin and Julie Andrews sang (on Broadway and film, respectively) and that Coltrane killed on his cover. Don’t be fooled about those packages tied up with strings and favorite things… this song is just as perfect on your birthday as it is any other time of year:
6. “I Believe in You”
Sinead O’Connor recorded this Bob Dylan classic on the compilation album A Very Special Christmas 2. O’Connor’s lilting, soft voice does Dylan’s hope-finding, faith-building lyrics justice. Truly, this one is one you could (and should) listen to all year long:
7. “Sister Winter”
In Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas, holiday tunes are aplenty, and they’re not all traditional. You still have to do a little digging to find one that’s not about Christmas outright – and, of course, we found one! (okay, the final lyric is “To wish you a Happy Christmas,” but that doesn’t restrict the tune to December listening only)
“Sister Winter” is less about the birth of Jesus and all of its surrounding festivities and more about someone’s heart turning cold following a bad breakup. It starts with simple instrumentation and minor chords and then uses percussion and an increased tempo that sounds almost angry, finally turning into something more joyful towards the end of the song:
This is another one that falls into the “How did this become a Christmas song?” category (check out the Washington Post piece on this). I don’t know about you, but personally, I could listen to my man Cee Lo’s rich voice put this tune over any day of the year. I admit that I could do without the strings, but I just love the way Cee Lo turned this into an R&B ballad instead of just a folk tune:
9. “Song for a Winter’s Night”
This is a more uplifting track, different from the contemplative, wistful Sarah McLachlan you may know. There’s a bit of Celtic flavor to this cover of the Gordon Lightfoot classic and the lyrics, while sentimental, lean more towards the romantic – and while it’s all about a winter’s night, December 24th isn’t necessarily the night Lightfoot is writing about:
Aaron Burr who? Truth be told, I only learned of Leslie Odom, Jr., because of this new Christmas album – not because of Hamilton – and holy moly, this might be my new favorite cover of anything of all time forever and ever amen.
Like “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss” has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas and has no real place on a Christmas album, but you quickly forget that (and forget you’re listening to a Christmas record) when you hear this gorgeous husband-and-wife duet:
11. “Winter Song”
Piano, strings, guitar, and harmonies provided by two of the greatest ladies of indie-folk-pop? This poignant tune by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles indeed celebrates the season of winter without bringing an ounce of Christmas to the lyrics, but it matters not. The question “Is love alive?” repeats throughout the song and is worthy of contemplation in any season:
12. “My Dear Acquaintance”
Ok, you can call it a New Year’s song, but a Christmas song it is not. This was originally a Peggy Lee tune, and Regina Spektor honors Lee’s rendition by staying quite true to the arrangement, and by singing and performing the song beautifully. You can tell from the first bar that the piano and vocals are Spektor all the way and the message is one that resonates well at Christmas, New Year’s, or any other time of year.
Personally, I’d love to see this as a new birthday song: “And a happy new year to all that is living / To all that is gentle, kind, and forgiving / Raise your glass and we’ll have a cheer / My dear acquaintance, a happy new year”:
13. “2000 Miles”
This all-time classic Pretenders song, which is a tribute to a band member who died from a drug overdose, does reference Christmas. However, it’s used more as a setting point for the time of year, and the song doesn’t center around the holiday celebrations themselves.
You could hear this song on any classic rock station during the year – it’s the kind of song you’d listen to and put on when you’re missing someone who’s passed away because it’s so relatable, with lyrics like: “Two thousand miles / Is very far through the snow / I’ll think of you / Wherever you go”. A classic rock ballad for sure:
14. “A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”
The Scottish indie rock band Glasvegas released its Christmas-themed EP in 2008 and the title track itself barely relates to the holiday. In fact, the opening lyrics are downright depressing: “The breeze from the graveyard keeps murmuring death / Too much time harbours thoughts in heads / Now I’m compelled to care / About my future going nowhere.”
However, there’s a happier ending that celebrates the magical effect that snowfall has on all of us – the lead singer goes on to sing: “Now I don’t feel so all alone in the cold wondering where I’m going today / For a snowflake fell and it felt like a kiss now I’m O-K.” Add to that the chimey sound effects and the brogue coming through on the lyrics, and it’s a great non-Christmas song on a Christmas album:
15. “You Couldn’t Be Cuter”
Diana Krall + Yo-Yo Ma = magic. In fact, the entire Yo-Yo Ma Christmas album (Songs of Joy and Peace) is one that that I would blast from my car windows from the holidays all the way through spring and summer, and not feel like a crazy person. The song arrangements, cast of performers, and sound quality are just that outstanding.
“You Couldn’t Be Cuter” is an adorable little jazz tune hearkening back to 1938 and only covered a handful of times (by Tommy Dorsey and Ella Fitzgerald, among others). It doesn’t mention Christmas or snow or winter or anything remotely related to December even once. Krall does quote “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” for a hot bar or two (no more) before the singing starts, but that’s it. You’d imagine the record playing in the background of a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan flick or by the band at a wedding – not necessarily while decorating the Christmas tree or going out caroling (although I think this kind of jazz makes excellent tree-trimming music, but maybe that’s just me):
A Year-Round Holiday Season
As the above 15 tunes proudly show, a song doesn’t have to mention snow, chestnuts roasting on open fires, or Jolly Old St. Nick to get you in the joyful spirit of the holidays. This time of year is about a certain feeling in the air, after all, and thanks to songs like these, you can experience this festive feeling any time of year. These songs are not so much about celebrating the holiday season as they are about celebrating life.
Try writing your own non-Christmas song this holiday season – see if you can make it festive without using any of the classic holiday motifs!
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